Back in January of this year, when I first decided to embark on reporting about bottled water in Michigan, I had literally no idea what I was in for. That’s probably a good thing, because I plowed ahead naively optimistic and enthusiastic.
My goal was seemingly simple: to put together a comprehensive map of water bottling operations in the state with information on their water source and the amount of water they bottled. It turned out to be anything but.
I spent months bouncing between Google searches and the state's records, and I’m still not convinced I accounted for every facility. I actually ended up alerting the state to facilities that weren’t properly licensed.
Only facilities that pump groundwater and have the capability of doing so at 70 gallons per minute or more have to report amounts to the state. So, what to do about the countless facilities that bottle tap water, or don’t pump enough groundwater to qualify for reporting requirements?
Down the rabbit hole
I started making phone calls, and I was mostly ghosted or denied by companies that didn’t want to give me their production volumes, including Detroit’s two big bottlers of tap water, Pepsi and Coke. So, after the original story ran, I submitted a Freedom of Information Act request to the City of Detroit. I thought perhaps they would provide me with Coke and Pepsi’s usage data.
A couple of months went by, and I had actually put it out of my mind; and then one day, there they were: a bunch of spreadsheets in my inbox, listing Coke and Pepsi’s billing and usage history for the last five years.
I contacted the companies again, e-mailing them with “I have your usage data from the City of Detroit - can you provide a comment?” in the subject header. For some reason, this time, they were much more responsive.
Of course, the data weren't straightforward. I had to figure out what seemed to be a huge discrepancy between the city’s data and Pepsi’s data (it turned out the culprit was a fire hydrant line).
I also can’t isolate bottled water out of this data because the water goes to all kinds of different beverages at the plants, and, as Coke reminded me, its brand production volumes are proprietary. However, we can at least get a sense of the volumes of water both companies use.
Coke purchased about 113 million gallons of water from the City of Detroit in 2016, and spokeswoman Kirsten Witt says the company returned 48% of it to the city as treated wastewater. Pepsi purchased about 105 million gallons of water, and Jennifer Ryan, a Pepsi spokeswoman, says it returned 60% of it to the city.
As a comparison, Nestle pumped about 396 million gallons of water to bottle as its Ice Mountain brand at its Stanwood plant in 2015.
How much do they pay for it?
On a per gallon basis, Pepsi and Coke pay the same amount for their water as residential users in Detroit, but they pay much more in something called “meter charges” -- a flat monthly fee based on the size of their water meters. They’re using a lot of water and their meters are industrial-sized, so they pay a lot for the extra volume. For example, according to data from the City of Detroit, Coke paid $1,136,008 in water usage charges last year.
Here are a few of the bullet points that Witt provided to me about Coke's water use:
"We have reduced our water use in our Detroit facility by 20% over the last decade through water efficiency improvements including robust leak detection and repair programs, air rinsers, water reclaim systems and dry line lube conveyor lines.
In Michigan alone, we supported three watershed replenishment projects in partnership with the U.S. Forest Service and the Nature Conservancy that replenished 594 million liters of water to the Lake Huron/Lake Superior watershed. Throughout the country we support more than 60 watershed projects in more than 100 communities.
For the past 9 years we have supported the U.S. River Network to host rain barrel workshops and programs in local communities throughout the country and have donated more than 800 rain barrels in Detroit and more than 5,000 rain barrels throughout Michigan."
Ryan said Pepsi's Detroit plant was “recognized last year as Pepsi's 'Most Improved' in terms of sustainability, in large part due to our water conservation efforts there.”
So, why does all of this matter? Bottled water is a tiny percentage of water use in Michigan. But, there are two main issues cited by critics.
First of all, bottled water/beverages are somewhat of a loophole in the interstate agreement that protects Great Lakes water from leaving the basin. The Great Lakes Compact is an agreement signed by Great Lakes states (and Canadian provinces). It bans diversions of water out of the Great Lakes basin. But it allows water to leave the basin in containers of 5.7 gallons or less.
Coke says it sells most of its beverage products locally (in the basin), but that doesn’t mean the company is required to, or that it even has to make that info public. Almost 20 years ago, a study done by the International Joint Commission reported that 14 times as much bottled water is imported into the Great Lakes region as exported. But, we don’t know how that’s changed, and it’s something that is clearly difficult to track.
The second issue is the idea of water as a commodity that’s bought and sold. Here's what Executive Director Liz Kirkwood of FLOW (For Love of Water), a Traverse City non-profit focused on water law, told me a few months ago:
“Because water is fundamental for all life on this planet, it should be protected as a public commons and human right. Allowing water to be 'owned' and privatized by multi-national corporations raises a number of alarming concerns, including shutoffs, rate increases associated with private financing, water quality degradation, accountability to shareholders rather than consumers," she said. "Priority number one is to ensure that all people have access to safe, clean affordable water, and that's best accomplished by keeping water public.”
Because of current regulations, I'll probably never be able to say for sure just how much of Michigan's water is sold in bottles. Below is my map of Michigan bottlers, updated to include the new information I've found: